Every single mental health reform in the US today owes its existence in part to the struggle of Black people in this country.
This is not an exaggeration or speculation. It is a true account of the history of mental health reform – where those reforms came from and how they were put into practice. While we certainly still have far to go, we came as far as we have today only with the movement for Black liberation paving the way. And we will never move forward to real and meaningful mental health reform without joining with the movement for Black liberation.
Remember our history: the psychiatric survivor movement, which then became the consumer movement and recovery movement and now the peer movement, was born in a time of civil rights and Black organizing in the US. It was Black people in the civil rights movement who inspired all of us to make social change real, and psychiatric patients and progressive professionals took up that inspiration. Black protest fueled the anti-war movement and led to the rise of the Women’s Movement, and the pioneering work of women’s consciousness raising groups broke the silence on psychiatric abuse, trauma, and violence against women. Influential feminist books about madness and psychiatry by Barbara Ehrenreich, Phyllis Chesler, and others brought mental health to the center of discussions about sexism and the treatment of women, who comprise the majority of mental patients. Black protest paved the way for the courage of the Stonewall Uprising and ignited the Gay Liberation movement, directly fighting psychiatry’s homophobic Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and opening a new understanding of human freedom and diversity.
In a very real way, Black protest made psychiatric protest possible, which then led to the modern consumer/peer/recovery movement. You can’t get around that history: it wasn’t politicians, doctors, or pharmaceutical companies that said “Hey let’s get some human rights in here, let’s get a recovery perspective, let’s get some peer alternatives, let’s rethink some of these drug risks, let’s question restraints and isolation cells, let’s get people out of confinement in the hospitals.” It took a protest movement. Funding for offices of consumer affairs in every state, the Alternatives Conference, technical assistance centers, community mental health and Patients Rights Advocacy programs, and now Peer Specialists and Peer run services — none of it would exist without psychiatric patient protests, and those protests were directly inspired by the civil rights movement. What mental health protections and rights we do have and take for granted today — living in the community, hearings before judges, informed consent, an end to lobotomy, confidentiality, disclosure of drug risks — none of it existed before the protest era of the 60s and 70s, and none of that protest would have been possible without the organizing and activism of Black people. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, and so many other leaders inspired all of us to dream of a world where our human rights are respected. We are part of that movement and our destiny is intertwined with it. We still have that dream.
And it’s more than just history. It’s also the future. Like many people with a psychiatric diagnosis and experiences with extreme states, I live in fear that my own emotional distress might one day spiral out of control and then escalate to violence when police show up on the scene. The Black Lives Matter movement is pushing police reform that will protect all of us. Black activism is promoting voting rights, prison and criminal justice change, poverty and social program priorities in ways that directly contribute to a future mental health system that truly meets peoples needs. Does anyone really think the power of the American Psychiatric Association, the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance industry or the hospital industry and their ilk is just going to suddenly get enlightened and turn towards patients rights and mental health reforms without a push? Where will that push come from?
History shows us that it takes a broader social change movement. The power of the pharma and medical industry lobbies is too great: only with comprehensive political challenge can we ever hope to make mental health reform happen. Mental health reform only took place in the US in the context of a broader social change movement setting the context. And meaningful reform will only happen in the future if that broader social change is happening. It’s a fantasy to just hope for a change of heart in the powers that be: it takes a movement. I wrote previously about the corrupting power of money blocking meaningful reform; the Movement for Black Lives is a leading part in a deeper challenge, a challenge that can make real social change possible. For the mental health system, for social problems, for all of us.
Does this sound like a distraction? Are we getting off topic, moving beyond the focus of our work? You will hear people say “We can’t take a stand on Black liberation because that is not our job. We are mental health and peer advocates, we are not here to support Black liberation.” Maybe we should look at something. Maybe we should look at the paycheck of the people who say we can’t take a stand. Does their paycheck comes with strings attached? If they are telling us we can’t endorse the Movement for Black Lives, are they really saying “I’m worried about my status and income, protecting my status and money is more important to me than actually making real change happen?” Isn’t it time for us to start putting people’s lives first? Don’t Black lives matter? Shouldn’t people be taking risks that might not go along with their job descriptions and might make their nervous about our funding, but are still the right thing to do? Isn’t that how change happens? We say we are trying to improve the mental health of society. Are we really? Are we really serious about mental health reform? Or is it just something we talk about without ever getting accomplished, which is fine with us as long as we keep getting paid?
When I travel around the US and meet with consumers/patients as well as family members, social workers, administrators, and professionals, I hear stories about people’s lives. Not their job descriptions, and not even just diagnosis and hospitals. I hear about their entire lives, lives affected by poverty, homelessness, and prisons, families broken up by foster care and trauma, people living in fear of the police, despair about the environment and the future of our children, overwhelming stress from credit card debt, low wages, and lack of healthcare… I hear about how people’s lives in an oppressive society directly affect their mental health. And again and again everyone agrees: the “mental health system” and the “disability system” are in fact ways that society deals with its larger issues of poverty and social problems. So when do we start working on the larger issues?
Let’s endorse the Movement for Black Lives call for comprehensive policy changes that will defend and promote the lives of Black people in the US. Not just because we support our Black community members affected by mental health issues, but because we know that the mental health reforms we seek can literally never succeed without the success of the demands for Black lives. We will never get real mental health change without real social change. Talk to your Boards of Directors, put it on your agenda, post about it, tweet about it, raise it at your meetings. An endorsement and adding your organization’s name to the growing list of people working for real change, will be a clear statement: recovery, the peer movement, and mental health reforms all depend on dealing with real social issues that are so deeply connected.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.